Bears

Bears' Week 2 in-foe: Bruce and the Birds

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Bears' Week 2 in-foe: Bruce and the Birds

What could've been?

At least until things kick off Sunday, Bruce Arians' return to Chicago - perhaps for the first time since being told to go home in the coaching interview process in January 2013 - will spur thoughts of where the Bears would be now had they chosen Arians over Marc Trestman.

As detailed by our own John Mullin following Phil Emery's firing last December, a reported "mock press conference" in the interview process, a desire to retain Rod Marinelli (instead of Arians' preference, current Jets head coach Todd Bowles), and then ignoring Marinelli's opinion after asking for it has gotten the Bears to where they are now. The Optimism Button has since been re-set with the Emery/Trestman tear-down coinciding with the franchise's next "swing" with Ryan Pace and John Fox. Arians has since won a second Coach of the Year Award and guided the Cardinals to a 22-11 record.

That includes a 1-0 mark this season after Carson Palmer became the first Cardinals quarterback to win seven straight games since Jim Hart, and 14 of his last 16 starts. In between, there was a second left ACL surgery within a decade. Arizona was 9-1 at the time Palmer crumbled last November, before finishing 11-5 when the signal-calling injuries became contagious.  But the 35-year-old eclipsed 300 yards in his return Sunday against the Saints while working without two of his projected starting offensive linemen; right tackle Robert Massie will serve the second of a two-game substance abuse suspension Sunday, and big ticket, nasty free agent Mike Iupati continues recovering from a preseason knee injury. April's first-round pick, D.J. Humphries, couldn't beat out Earl Watford to slide in for Massie. Arians looked to the Bay Area two off-seasons ago to sign Jared Veldheer away from Oakland to protect Carson's blind side.

[RELATED: Bruce Arians has no hard feelings at being passed over for Bears job]

The 31st-ranked rushing offense came back with Andre Ellington as its starter, but the third-year pro was again bit by the injury bug Sunday, suffering a knee sprain that's projected to keep him out the next two or three games. So Arians must choose between ex-2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson and almost-as-fast third-round rookie David Johnson to pick up the slack. The latter returned a kick 43 yards Sunday before turning a short pass from Palmer into a "next-gear" 55-yard touchdown to seal the 31-19 victory.

Speaking of speed, 2014 third-rounder John Brown turned four of his five touchdowns as a rookie into game-winners a year ago. Then there's the youngest receiver to reach 700, 800, and 900 career catches, the now-32-year-old Larry Fitzgerald. After being virtually ignored following Palmer's injury, he led the Redbirds with six receptions for 87 yards Sunday. And as Michael Floyd works his way back from preseason finger surgery, Palmer worked tight end Darren Fells into the mix with a touchdown catch among his four grabs for 82 yards.

For as much praise as Bowles' defense got before he moved on, it's at least a statistical lie. The Cards finished 24th overall a year ago, 29th against the pass despite the great Patrick Peterson, the continued rise of Tyrann Mathieu and the presence of Antonio Cromartie, who went with Bowles to the Jets. Jermon Bushrod and Kyle Long will have to contend with arguably the top 5-technique in the league, 6-foot-8 Calais Campbell. Whether they can find a suitable replacement for Dan Williams (Oakland) remains to be seen.

[MORE: Grading John Fox's debut as Bears head coach]

Alex Okafor, after his stock slipped to the fourth round of the 2013 draft, is now the consistent presence in the 3-4 linebacking corps. Larry Foote retired and now coaches that group, which brought his former Steelers teammate Lamarr Woodley over after an underachieving, injury-shortened year in Oakland. That option was chosen over retaining current Bear Sam Acho by ex-linebackers coach James Bettcher, who took over as defensive coordinator. Arizona also rolled the dice with the talented Sean Witherspoon, who missed all of 2014 in Atlanta with a torn ACL, and drafted fellow-Mizzou alum Markus Golden in the second round, which is where they selected their other inside starter, Kevin Minter, in 2013.

Besides the threat of David Johnson returning kicks, special teams includes kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who hit his first 17 field goal attempts as a rookie last season. Then there's punter Drew Butler (Kevin's son), who was brought in as Pat O'Donnell's training camp relief in last year's Bears camp, and may have outperformed the sixth-round pick at the time. Butler wound up second in the league last year with 42 punts downed inside the 20.

For Bears drafting at No. 8, the 'problem' with Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson is...

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USA TODAY

For Bears drafting at No. 8, the 'problem' with Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson is...

In the aptly-named mock drafts to this point, this reporter has posited the Bears selecting Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. That’s not the complete story, however. There’s a “problem.”

The landscape: The Bears currently sit at No. 8 overall; Nelson is rated among the best prospects, regardless of position, in the 2018; Nelson is the consensus top offensive lineman in this draft; the Bears have an immediate need on the interior of their offensive line (at guard or center, depending upon where where the new coaching staff slots Cody Whitehair); and among the prime directives for GM Ryan Pace is the protection of franchise quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

And full disclosure: This reporter does see Nelson to the Bears, just not at No. 8, and presumably if the Bears do not address the post-Josh Sitton situation in free agency.

But there’s a problem. A couple, actually, and having nothing to do specifically with Nelson.

The “problem” centers (no pun intended) around his position: Guard.

Guards do not typically come off the board within the first 10 picks of drafts. Worse for guards, when they do, they don’t work out well. In the last five drafts, only two guards were selected within the first 10 picks, both in the 2013 draft, both (Jonathan Cooper, No. 7; Chance Warmack, No. 10) already undistinguished and both already on their second teams.

Great guards are indeed to be found in first rounds. But relevant NFL history says that they do not come early. Selectively, to wit:

Player Drafted Year
David DeCastro 24 2012
Alan Faneca* 26 1998
Steve Hutchinson* 17 2001
Kyle Long 20 2013
Zack Martin 16 2014

* 2017 Hall of Fame semifinalist

Meaning: Assuming the Bears do not spend starter money in free agency on the like of Andrew Norwell, Justin Pugh, Zach Fulton or (insert UFA name here). Parenthetically on the draft-value aspect of good guards, Norwell was undrafted, Pugh was the 2013 pick just ahead Long, as a tackle, and Fulton was a sixth-rounder.

Pace predilections: “stat” players

Pace is in desperate need of impact players in both the draft and free agency. A guard is simply not in the “impact” vein as Pace’s first three No. 1 draft picks, all top-10’ers and all with something in common that a guard does not bring: stats.

Stats themselves aren’t the point, and an elite offensive lineman contributes to the stats of everyone else on his unit. But 2015 No. 1 Kevin White is a wide receiver; they catch passes and score touchdowns. Pace’s 2016 No. 1 was a rush-linebacker who generates sacks; Leonard Floyd. And 2017 No. 1 was Mitch Trubisky. All players with the potential for producing major-impact, game-changing stat plays.

Conversely, Pace’s New Orleans touchstone was an offensive line that protected Drew Brees with mid-rounders Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks at guard, and no offensive lineman drafted higher than the second round (Jon Stinchcomb).

Best guess, too, is that new head coach Matt Nagy, who’ll obviously be an intimate part of the draft process, will not be pounding the table for a guard, or perhaps for any offensive lineman with that first first-round pick of his tenure. The Kansas City Chiefs got just a so-so starting tackle (Eric Fisher) with the No. 1-overall pick of the 2013 draft while Nagy was there. And the very good Philadelphia Eagles teams took exactly one offensive lineman higher than the fourth round during Nagy’s years there (2008-12) with Andy Reid – and that pick was a guard (Danny Watkins) picked at No. 23, and who was a bust.

Conclusion: If Nelson is far, far and away the highest-graded player on the Bears’ draft board, Pace will make that move – if, and only if, Pace cannot trade down and add the picks that every GM craves as part of franchise-building, which is where the Pace-Nagy administration stands.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 grade: B-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Kyle Fuller (free agent), Prince Amukamara (free agent), Marcus Cooper (contract), Sherrick McManis (free agent), Bryce Callahan (restricted free agent), Quintin Demps (contract)

Possible free agent targets: Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland, E.J. Gaines, Rashaad Melvin, Robert McClain, Darrelle Revis

There’s a wide spectrum of scenarios for the Bears at cornerback, ranging from keeping the status quo to blowing the whole thing up, and everything in between. Safety is far more stable, with Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson proving to be a reliable pairing, so that’s set for 2018.

Let’s start with one end of that cornerback spectrum: The Bears keep the top of this unit intact. That means, No. 1, retaining Kyle Fuller via the franchise tag and/or a long-term contract. No. 2, it means bringing back Prince Amukamara, who didn’t record an interception and committed a few too many penalties, but otherwise was a fine enough cover corner. No. 3, it means keeping restricted free agent Bryce Callahan as the team’s No. 1 slot corner.

On paper, this doesn’t seem like an altogether bad option. The Bears weren’t spectacular at cornerback in 2017, but the position was a little better than average, which isn’t the worst place to be for a single unit. Couple with solid play from the safeties and the Bears’ defensive backs were overall a decent enough group. Outside of Marcus Cooper -- who is a candidate to be cut for cap savings -- the Bears may not need to make wholesale changes to this group.

That, though, is a rosier look at this unit. The Bears can certainly improve the personnel in it with a healthy amount of cap space and a strong crop of free agent cornerbacks about to hit the market. Keeping Fuller and then signing a top-tier player like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler would upgrade this group, as would bringing back Fuller and Amukamara but then using a high draft pick on a player like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward.

Unless the Bears sign two big-time cornerbacks -- i.e. Fuller and Johnson, or even a guy like Brashaud Breeland or E.J. Gaines -- it would seem reasonable for them to use a first or second-round pick on a cornerback in an effort to find a longer-term solution at the position. That doesn’t mean the Bears would absolutely have to go that route, especially with other needs at wide receiver, guard and outside linebacker.

But here’s another thought: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears are able to sign a combination of two top cornerbacks in free agency. With plenty of cap space top-end free agents lacking at wide receiver and outside linebacker/edge rusher, could Pace allocate a good chunk of that money to, say, tagging Fuller and making runs at Johnson, Butler and/or Breeland? 2018 looks to be a good year to be aggressive in the free agent cornerback market, and that could play into the Bears’ strategy well.

Before we finish, we should carve out some space for Amos and Jackson. Pro Football Focus isn’t the only outlet that’s given Amos high marks -- Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ranked him as the No. 1 free safety in the league, too. Jackson came in at No. 19 in B/R’s strong safety rankings, which is pretty solid for a fourth-round rookie.

But the larger point here isn’t exactly where Amos and Jackson are in outside evaluations -- it’s that, tangibly, the pair played well off each other on a consistent basis last year. Seeing as Amos didn’t enter the Bears’ starting lineup until Week 4 -- after Quintin Demps suffered a season-ending broken forearm against Pittsburgh -- how quickly and successfully he and Jackson meshed was one of the more impressive developments for the Bears’ 2017 defense. Amos needs to make more plays on the ball and Jackson has some things to clean up, but the Bears enter the 2018 league year not needing to address their safety position. That’s a good place to be for a team with other significant needs.